Radioactive smoke blows into VA, UCLA and Bel Air from January 26 brush fire that reveals more illegally dumped veterans’ tombstones
• Tritium-contaminated brush goes up in flames, radioactive smoke seen for miles
• Fire reveals more illegally discarded veterans tombstones
• VA fails to respond to comments submitted on nuke dump, yet says “environmental and historic preservation due diligence” to begin February 8
• Draft Plan finalized that minimizes and mischaracterizes VA dump
• Spirit of plan undermined by secret Brentwood School negotiations
Bellowing flames fifty feet high roared through contaminated brush at the West Los Angeles campus of the Department of Veterans Affairs’ biomedical nuclear and chemical dump January 26. Fire scorched decades-old palm trees as it burned through bushes that should have been already cut back due to their vulnerability to ignition.
The suspected arson in the heart of the tony L.A. enclave of Brentwood next to a dog park and recreation fields was knocked down by 52 Los Angeles Fire Department personnel in 30 minutes. Blocking off Barrington Avenue, the LAFD reported beating back the inferno. “[S]ignificant smoke visible in West LA,” another LAFD bulletin declared.
Significant radioactive smoke. A two million dollar VA study of the dump in 2009 and 2010, precipitated by EnviroReporter.com’s reporting, found high levels of radioactive tritium in the dump’s plants as exposed in the December 17 article, West LA VA ‘master plan’ covers up its chemical and nuclear dump. Now the contaminated vegetation was up in smoke exposing thousands to radiation while leaving much of the huge dump unburned and still susceptible to conflagration.
EnviroReporter.com first became aware of the fire two days after it occurred, on January 28 while attending a VA event just 200 yards from the charred dump. The festivities, featuring VA Secretary Robert “Bob” McDonald, were held to celebrate the West LA VA’s draft ‘master plan’ being finalized with only a brief and trivializing mention of the toxic waste dump at the heart of the targeted land.
Completing a trifecta of toxic travails, the dump fire burned away enough radioactive brush to reveal even more dumped tombstones of veterans than EnviroReporter.com and LA Weekly exposed in 2009. Veterans’ tombstones continue to emerge, helped by recent rains revealing the white marble markers that were dumped decades ago.
The outrageousness – and illegality – of veterans’ tombstones being tossed into the old disposal grounds is a good metaphor for what EnviroReporter.com has found: Veterans are getting shafted by a new master plan that continues VA’s denial of the nuke dump that its own tests show to be spreading contamination. Like the headstones, the dump appears to be deliberately disremembered.
Veterans are also getting taken advantage of in the new master plan as the VA is quietly negotiating a sweetheart deal with an “enhanced lease” occupant of a huge amount of VA rented far below markets – Brentwood School. So as veterans are continuing to be exposed to the Brentwood dump’s poisons, they are being ripped off by their very powerful and wealthy neighbors who claim to be doing them a favor. All the while, they are disrespected even in death.
Hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake, let alone the potential health impacts of allowing the dump to sit there undisturbed, catching fire and spreading radiation over the VA and beyond in ash, dust and groundwater. Covering up the nuke dump and failing to dig it out points to a strategy of ‘bury it and they will forget it.’
This approach has already worked at Brentwood School where a multi-million sports complex was built on top of a part of the dump that included used syringes and chloroform wastes. Over 5,600 pages of VA reports obtained by former Congressman Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles) and shared with EnviroReporter.com in 2007 tell a worrisome tale of contamination and cover-up.
MASTER PLAN PARTY
The celebration January 28 at the VA included around 200 people gathered outside the newly renovated VA Building 209 courtyard to hear speeches lauding the McDonald’s signing off on the draft master plan. Congressman Ted Lieu (D-Los Angeles), Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, L.A. City Councilmember Mike Bonin, and a host of VA officials headed by Secretary McDonald populated the event that appeared oddly absent of veteran L.A. activists who have fought enhanced leases the hardest for years.
Several speakers spoke proudly of the 889-page preliminary draft final master plan receiving over a thousand public comments. This input included EnviroReporter.com’s comment, which called attention to the tritium and other contaminants found in the nuke dump. Yet on February 2, the VA published a response to comments in the Federal Register that completely ignored our input on the nuclear and biomedical dump.
While the “revised framework” Draft Master Plan states that comments were “carefully reviewed and considered,” the only mention of the dump is a three-paragraph blurb about the “inactive waste burial site” in the Existing Conditions and Site Analysis section. There, the VA declares that the dump presents no health risks and that the VA will “further consider potential impacts associated with the draft master plan and the waste burial site in its National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) analysis.”
The January 28 event included large model renderings of the property. The dump site is handsomely designed into the plan with terraced open spaces, walking paths and trees. Creating such grounds would involve a lot of earth-moving which might become complicated when encountering dump debris or toxic waste.
Speakers recounted entering into negotiations directly January 28, 2015 in the wake of the successful Valentini lawsuit against the VA ordering it to service the veterans homeless population and to rid the federal campus of its controversial enhanced leases. Ron Olson, an attorney working pro-bono representing veterans, beamed as he recounted the agreement to drop legal action against the VA. Now all parties to the table were on the same side.
This is another way of saying that the veterans who had fought the private dismemberment of the largest VA land west of the Mississippi River were about to find their representation had largely failed them. The divvying up of the VA had begun in earnest with little regard for what the court found in terms of gross violations of veterans’ rights over the land deeded to them in 1888 as an Old Soldiers Home.
This still left the unaddressed issue of the fenced-off nuclear waste dumps two hundred yards to the west of Building 209’s courtyard, which was not addressed at all in the preliminary draft master plan though its own tests confirmed what EnviroReporter.com exposed.
“You can’t really address something if you aren’t going to be using the land,” said David S. Bayard to this reporter by way of explaining the dump’s absence from the master plan. Bayard is the director of the VA’s western regional office of public affairs. “We need legislation first,” he said, referring to the fact that in order for the VA Master Plan to come to fruition, Congress must first approve it. (Bayard also corrected our reported $1 million costs of the 2009 and 2010 chemical and radiation testing caused by our coverage. The VA didn’t spend $1 million on the testing, it spent $2 million.)
But indeed, all of the illustrations and modeling of the master plan do indicate that the large dumping area will be used, showing extensive landscaping for the area. It will need a lot of landscaping to work around the exposed rubble and charred veterans’ tombstones.
When asked after the speeches whether the omission from the preliminary draft final master plan of any reference to the dump bothered him, McDonald first thanked EnviroReporter.com for uncovering the issue beginning in 2006 with our first reporting on it.
“Thank you for exposing it,” Secretary McDonald said to us, adding “I’m in favor of making this the best possible campus for veterans.”
VA point man Vince Kane reiterated the Secretary’s statement. “There’s reports (sic) and as the Secretary said the plan is make this the best campus possible and that we will use that information to make this the best campus possible.”
Kane is special assistant to McDonald overseeing the master plan implementation vis-à-vis the homeless. He was with the VA National Center on Homelessness Among Veterans in Philadelphia when McDonald named him as the Secretary’s designated expert on homelessness pursuant to a provision requiring such a designation in the January 2015 settlement of the Valentini lawsuit.
EnviroReporter.com’s questions weren’t always as welcome as evidenced by the reaction of Brentwood-representing L.A. Councilmember Mike Bonin. “I don’t deal in hypotheticals,” Bonin said. “I’m not talking to you right now. Go see my press guy.”
Bonin’s reaction came as a surprise to this reporter. His predecessor, Bill Rosendahl is a veteran who successfully fought to get the dump tested in close consultation with EnviroReporter.com. Bonin was his chief of staff during this time.
Hostility wasn’t confined to a rude pol in dump denial. After the ceremony, EnviroReporter.com endeavored to see which way the wind was blowing the smoke the day of the fire. A veteran who identified himself as Joe at the Heroes Golf Course partly adjacent to the dump said he could smell the smoke.
“Did you get permission to be here?” Joe asked. “The press isn’t allowed on VA property.”
Longtime VA stalwart Tony “Dreamer” Bravo in his Freedom Barber Shop trailer in the middle of the VA northern campus was more amicable. “I couldn’t smell the fire and I have a pretty good nose,” he said.
EnviroReporter.com had cautioned that the site was a radioactive brush fire hazard on December 20, given that a wide swath of it was used to dispose of radioactive waste. “Carcasses of radioactive lab dogs, cats and a menagerie of animals make up around half of the toxic trash deep-sixed in the dirt off of Barrington Avenue” according to our Real Hot Property exposé in 2006.
“Barrels full of radioactive tritium, carbon-14 and at least thirteen other isotopes, along with contaminated biomedical lab waste, were also tossed or poured into this dump in trenches and holes with nary a record of the dumping for the first years of operation,” we wrote. The VA’s $2 million dollar tests confirmed our reporting and even found that radioactive tritium was being sucked up into the dump’s brush, the same plant fuel that resulted in radioactive smoke spewing from the VA January 26.
A gripping, albeit brief, video of the fire was captured by Carlos Davis who works along South Barrington Place in Brentwood Village. It also shows the smoke blowing in a northeasterly direction over the golf course, Brentwood School, UCLA and up into the hills of Bel Air.
EnviroReporter.com obtained a photograph of the fire taken from a mid-rise building on San Vicente Boulevard that shows the smoke belching into the sky. The new VA hospital blocks a view of the flames but a LAFD ladder truck is seen spraying the fire area with a police helicopter hovering overhead. A mother of two Brentwood School students who requested anonymity sent us the photo with a dramatic description of her reaction to news of the nuke dump being next to her girls in the daytime.
“I have an amazing view of the VA,” she wrote January 28. “A few days ago I looked up to see a fire behind the VA. It was put out an hour later, however later that night I could not find any coverage on it despite the fact that the kids were in lockdown and a man in fatigues had started the fire (kids were told) and had thrown something over the Brentwood fence.”
“The fire was right behind the soccer field on the VA property used by club teams,” the Brentwood mom continued. “My daughter plays club soccer there for the Breakers and she could smell it that night and said it was horrible! She also came home after practice and was sick to her stomach and had severe stomach pain that eventually subsided.”
NUKE ‘EM HIGH
An October 6, 2014 video called The History of Brentwood School (Los Angeles) provides an invaluable key to knowing where solid and liquid contaminated goo was buried before becoming home to the Brentwood School Eagles football, baseball, track and tennis teams. A still from the video reveals the deep dump ravine built over with the school’s athletic fields and indicates that the dumping was done in the deep arroyo next to MacArthur Field to such an extent that today it is nearly entirely filled up.
This is what would need to be excavated to eliminate the problem without the need to tear apart the mesa land feature that is the Barrington Recreational Center and dog park. The photo, taken before Brentwood School existed, actually reduces the amount of land thought to be dumped in and on: it’s appears to be just the arroyos that creased the property. The result would be a smaller but still considerable cleanup.
Ironically, by building athletic fields on VA property with biomedical waste, Brentwood School becomes a rare example of reverse-environmental justice. Here, wealthy people pay tuition higher than most universities to have their kids play on fields built over radioactive and chemical debris.
The Brentwood School mom, for example, has plenty invested in her children’s education. Paying for two students to go to Brentwood School’s grades K-6 and 7-12 respectively costs $31,890 and $37,725. Yearly. Currently, 300 students are enrolled in the school’s east campus in grades K-6, 230 in 7-8 and 465 in 9-12. The cost of attending the exclusive school from Kindergarten through 12th grade, at current rates, is $449,580.
Brentwood School’s income, based on a per student tuition cost and numbers of students in each price category and grade not discounting scholarships, is $35,785,875, yearly. It leases its property from the VA for just $450,000 a year. The tuition of just twelve students in the upper class more than covers what Brentwood School pays the VA for this invaluable land.
Actually, the land does have a value. Compared to the cost per square foot (PSF) of retail space on Barrington Court in Brentwood Village, which recently was $78 PSF, Brentwood School is paying a pittance, just $2.13. That is just 2.7 percent of the Brentwood Village market rate.
If Brentwood School paid a discounted market rate cost, adjusted yearly, to rent the 22 acres – say just10 percent of the Brentwood retail market rate, it would total $7.4 million a year. That would go a long way toward development for veterans as well as give them a measure of justice for their land that has been abused and used without their consent or significant benefit.
ATOMIC TOMBSTONES REDUX
Perhaps the most visual example of the raw deal handed to our soldiers in LA is the sight of veterans’ tombstones lying exposed in the dump now that the fire has burned away the brush. They lie among garbage in the most disrespectful – and against VA regulations – manner and can be seen by hundreds of kids playing soccer and pesky reporters who know where to look.
This is the second time EnviroReporter.com has exposed American warriors’ monuments being treated in this way. Our December 9, 2009 post Atomic Tombstones and December 10, 2009 LA Weekly news story Brentwood’s Toxic Grave forced the VA to remove the markers and dispose of them in accordance to regulations.
“Nine of the broken grave markers within clear view, and easily accessible were gathered and taken to the Los Angeles National Cemetery for destruction,” the VA wrote in a testy December 17, 2009 statement to LA Weekly and EnviroReporter.com. “We want to convey to the public all of these “found” markers had replacements at each respective burial site within the cemetery. GLA is working with the cemetery to make sure there are no more broken grave markers partially covered amongst the heavy foliage and construction debris.”
Yet grave markers remain strewn in the dump six years later. One such monument EnviroReporter.com found, photographed and investigated belonged to Jack J. O’Neill from Wisconsin. He fought in World War II and died in 1966. When his wife Esther came to join him in 1974, her name was added to his on a new marble headstone.
VA regulations state clearly, “Marble and granite headstones or markers that are permanently removed from a grave must be destroyed, ensuring that the inscription is no longer legible.”
The reason for this, one can assume, is the sanctity of the symbol created to identify the remains of a soul that served his or her country, in peace and in battle. Tossing off these sacred stones in the pit of a nuclear waste dump is reprehensible. Leaving them there for all to see, especially after having been previously alerted to the misdeed, is outrageous.
VETERANS DESERVE BETTER
The last time there was an attempt to bamboozle veterans out of their deeded land in 2007, EnviroReporter.com’s reporting helped stop the $4 billion heist hatched under George W. Bush’s VA. “There were other issues that we ran into that were much more complicated; certainly the issue around the radiation of Barrington Park, which we have addressed in the Phase One report coming out,” said special assistant to the VA Secretary Jay Halpern in 2007. “Now we enter the Phase Two study to ensure that there is absolutely nothing underneath there.”
The toxic waste dump existence has been repeatedly proven using VA and UCLA documents, maps, and photographs. Remediating the place would seem to be a no-brainer, given $2 million dollars’ worth of VA tests confirming the dump, the dump’s continuing threat to veterans and people downwind of its radioactive brush fire, and more charred tombstones in the atomic graveyard again visible.
Perhaps that will happen yet. The VA Draft Master Plan includes an appendix on Environmental Impact that states, “Specifically, VA shall ensure that all practical means and measures are used to protect, restore, and enhance the quality of the humane environment; to avoid or minimize adverse environmental consequences.” But given the now decades long battle, we aren’t holding our breathe.
EnviroReporter.com is not the only one concerned with the veterans getting a square deal in the master plan. Another is longtime veteran supporter and West LA VA attorney and advocate Bobby Shriver, who with his influential pedigree and career is a force to be reckoned with.
“I’m concerned about many things that are not in the plan including the study of the underground utilities, the underground steam,” Shriver told EnviroReporter.com at the January 28 VA event. “There are many, many things that need to be done and that’s why the plan is called the framework plan. Many studies need to be done before large scale development can happen here and that’s [the dump] one of them for sure, obviously.”
“You’re doing this great reporting and keeping the pressure on people,” Shriver said. “It’s an American tradition. Give ‘em Hell!”
EnviroReporter.com will certainly continue our investigation of the West LA VA. Any master plan that doesn’t properly address West LA VA’s biomedical nuclear and chemical dump isn’t worthy of this nation’s warriors. Nor should veterans have to put up with getting ripped off by private entities making tens of millions off the place yearly with a barely a trickle making it to the men and women who deserve it most.
Veterans deserve better. It’s their land.